NMIT scientists make Olympic news

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Three Nelson scientists are making headlines around the world for work which warns that before the end of the century most cities could be too hot to host the Summer Olympic Games.

The Washington Post is the latest to report findings from the eight scientists who have produced more than 60 scientific papers on heat stress and its impact on productivity and human health.

But it’s their latest findings, first published in the English medical journal, The Lancet, which is capturing attention, focusing on the Olympics as an example of the effects of climate change.

The three Nelson scientists involved in the research are Bruno Lemke and Matthias Otto from Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) and independent scientist Professor Tord Kjellstrom who leads the “Hothaps” research team.

The research co-author is Professor Alistair Woodward from Auckland University and other scientists are from universities in California.

Bruno Lemke is a physicist and now tutor in NMIT’s Department of Health and Fitness and Matthias Otto is from the Department of Arts, Media and Digital Technology and created the database for easy retrieval of information on climate, health and population.

Bruno says the study showed that by 2085, almost 90 per cent of the large cities in the northern hemisphere will be so affected by climate change that the temperature and humidity will be too high to safely run a marathon in summer.

He says the Olympics forecast is attracting headlines in a way that the team’s other work has not. The main research over several years has focused on the effects of heat stress in the workplace – from a health and productivity point of view.

Bruno says the study showed that athletes are especially prone to heat stress in outdoor endurance events. For example, the 2007 Chicago marathon was cancelled mid-race after hundreds of heat-stricken runners required medical care. This year, only about 70% of the elite competitors in the US Olympic team trials marathon in Los Angeles finished the race where peak temperature reached 25-6C.

Bruno says heavy work outdoors is already limited in some parts of the world by heat stress-as measured by the wetbulb globe temperature (WBGT), a combination of temperature, humidity, heat radiation, and wind.

The ‘Hothaps’ team found that at elevated levels, it is simply too much for humans to bear for long outdoors, especially when engaged in physical exertion. “If there’s too much humidity it limits our ability to use evaporation, through sweating, to cool down our bodies.”

“If the world’s most elite athletes need to be protected from climate change, what about the rest of us?,” Bruno says.

The study found only three cities in North America, two in Asia and none in Africa would be considered “low-risk” for outdoor exercise in the future.